Researcher Chronicles the Lives of African Immigrants in the Bronx
Grantees in this story
A Carnegie Corporation-funded research project sheds light on one of the largest West African enclaves in the northeastern United States.
African Immigration Research, a report released this past August by the Department of African and African-American Studies and the Bronx African-American History Project (BAAHP), details the research of Jane Kani Edward, Ph.D.
A post-doctoral fellow and director of African immigration research in the department, Edward’s research shows the need for educators in the Bronx to develop programs that are sensitive to the children of African immigrants. It also encourages the city Department of Education to address the lack of English-language proficiency among the children of Francophone Africans, and for area colleges to teach the many indigenous languages spoken in the Bronx.
Edward, a Sudanese scholar, came to Fordham in 2006 to conduct oral histories of African immigrants who were revitalizing once-decaying Bronx neighborhoods. These immigrants opened businesses, churches and mosques, bought homes and began using public schools as vehicles of mobility.
A year later, a fire that ripped through a three-family house in the Highbridge section of the Bronx drove her research off-campus. As officials and residents grappled with the tragedy, which killed 10 Malian immigrants—mostly children—hundreds of African Muslims gathered outside a mosque on Sheridan Avenue for a memorial.
Seeing this overwhelming community response, Edward and Mark Naison, Ph.D., professor and chair of African and African-American studies, realized that they would have to go much deeper than conducting oral interviews in Dealy Hall. Edward was brought on full time, and then applied to the Carnegie Corporation of New York for funding.
She and Naison received a $50,000 grant and hit the streets.
“Our objective was to gather the life histories, in detail, of African immigrants,” Edward said. “We needed to build trust, and we did that by going into the community.”
Edward and her research team conducted an average of one interview per week in churches, Islamic centers, schools, businesses and apartments in the New York City neighborhoods of Morrisania, Highbridge, Tremont, Morris Heights and South Fordham. Most of these immigrants hailed from West Africa—Ghana, Nigeria, Mali, Guinea, Gambia, Senegal and Togo.
By collecting oral histories, Edward hoped to provide insight into the immigrants’ varied life experiences and contributions.
“Africans in the Bronx should not be seen as dependent solely on the social services in this country,” she said. “They are active contributors to the economic, social, cultural, intellectual and political life in the Bronx and their communities in Africa.”
In other words, as opposed to simply assessing the needs and challenges faced by this immigrant community—a time-honored tactic in academic research—Edward set out to analyze their contributions and achievements.
“I also wanted to show that this wasn’t a homogeneous group. They are differentiated by their national, religious, class, social status, gender, age, ability, disability and more,” she said.
Her research team compiled a list of African establishments in the Bronx. It included 19 masajid (mosques), 15 churches, 20 movie rental stores and other businesses, 19 markets, nine restaurants, six hair-braiding salons, six African-owned newspapers, four community organizations, two law firms, a women’s organization, a research institute and a website.
“It shows how they transformed a community,” she said. “They maintain tradition by establishing places of worship and markets that sell the foods they eat.”
Some immigrants go even further in maintaining the traditions of their homeland.
“They send their kids to school in Africa for several reasons. Some consider the schools here unsafe; others don’t want to take a chance on their children not finishing high school,” Edward said. “But they also do it to create a bond between their children and their home country.”
The challenge of disciplining their children, a theme that came up several times in interviews, could be another reason children are sent overseas.
“In African societies, discipline is the responsibility of parents, especially fathers. Here, corporal punishment is against the law and that is a source of frustration for many African immigrants, who fear they are losing control of their children,” Edward said.
Gender role-reversal is another sore spot because, although both immigrant husbands and wives must work in most cases, wives are also expected to cook, clean and raise the children. This can cause a wife to feel overworked. In other cases, a husband may be ambivalent toward his wife if he is forced to pitch in while she is working.
Some of the African immigrants who were interviewed told of frosty race relations with African Americans. Some have been accused of “taking up jobs that were usually done by African Americans,” Edward said.
“Some said African Americans discriminate against them for their dark skin or the way they dress,” she said. “Often, the children will leave the house with traditional dress, such as a hijab (head scarf), but then change before they get to school.”
About 75 percent of the African immigrants are Muslim, Edward said. Therefore, she will focus next on this segment of the population.
“When people in the United States think about Muslims, many think of the Middle East or Southeast Asia. They should get to know their African neighbors to perhaps get a different perspective on Muslims in the United States,” Edward said.
Perhaps the increasing number of African Muslims in the Bronx can provide an example of interfaith dialogue and relations, she added.
“The mosque is not only for their congregation,” Edward said. “A mosque in the Parkchester area of the Bronx, for example, held a huge event to collect donations and funds for victims of the Haiti earthquake and it was well received by the community.”